Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by W. P. Ker
Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay (18001859)
[Thomas Babington Macaulay was born in 1800, the son of Zachary Macaulay; he was educated at Clapham and at private schools elsewhere, till the time of his residence at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was elected to a Fellowship in 1824. He was called to the bar in 1826; and in 1830 he entered the House of Commons as member for Calne. In 1823, with the publication of Knights Quarterly Magazine under Praed as editor, Macaulays contributions to the reviews began: the series of essays in the Edinburgh Review began in 1825 and went on till 1844, when it was dropped for the sake of the History of England. Macaulays public life was at first involved in the debates on the Reform Bill, where he distinguished himself as a vehement orator. Shortly after the passing of the Bill he was appointed to the Board of Control (constituted by Pitts East India Act, in 1784), and in 1834, in order to restore the fortunes of his family, he went to India as member of the Supreme Council. In India his principal work was the framing of the Criminal Code; his notes for this purpose are included in his Miscellaneous Works. His stay in India did not interrupt his work for the Review. He returned in 1838 and was shortly afterwards elected member for Edinburgh. His position in the House of Commons was not injured by his five years absence; he spoke with effect on many questions, especially on the policy of Lord Ellenborough in India in 1842. In the election of 1847, owing chiefly to Macaulays want of interest in the ecclesiastical controversies of Scotland, he was rejected by the Edinburgh electors. He did not enter Parliament again till he was re-elected at Edinburgh in 1852, without coming forward as a candidate. The first two volumes of the History were published in 1849, volumes iii. and iv. in 1855. In the former year he delivered an Inaugural Address as Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow. In 1854 he published a corrected edition of his Speeches. Out of friendship for Mr. Adam Black, the publisher, he contributed to the Encyclopædia Britannica the short biographies of Atterbury, Bunyan, Goldsmith, Johnson, and Pitt, which are among his latest writings; the life of Pitt was finished in August 1858. In 1856 Macaulay resigned his seat on account of failing health. In 1857 he was created Baron Macaulay of Rothley. He died on the 28th of December 1859. The fifth volume of the History was published in 1861.
Macaulays Essays appeared in the following order in the Edinburgh Review:Milton, 1825; Machiavelli, 1827; Dryden, History, and Hallams Constitutional History, 1828; the three controversial essays on James Mills Theory of Government, 1829; Southeys Colloquies, Robert Montgomerys Poems, 1830; Sadlers Law of Population, 1830 and 1831; Civil Disabilities of the Jews, Byron, Crokers Boswell, Bunyan, Hampden, 1831; Burleigh, Mirabeau, 1832; War of the Succession in Spain, Horace Walpole, 1833; Lord Chatham, 1834; Mackintosh, 1835; Bacon, 1837; Sir William Temple, 1838; Gladstone on Church and State, 1839; Clive, 1840; Ranke, 1840; Comic Dramatists of the Restoration, Lord Holland, Warren Hastings, 1841; Frederick the Great, 1842; Madame dArblay, Addison, 1843; Barère, and the second essay on Chatham, 1844. The Lays of Ancient Rome were published in 1842.]
THE POPULARITY of Macaulays writings is not due to any remote or hidden causes. It is rather idle to ascribe his influence and fame to his expression of popular sentiments and prejudices, or to lay emphasis on those passages in his works where he may have followed or accompanied the multitude in judging rashly. While no one can doubt the effect on his work of his conformity with popular standards of judgment, or question his right to be taken as a representative of the common sense of his time, it is not to that conformity that his influence is to be traced. His popularity was honestly won by the energy and capacity of his mind, and by an eloquence which, whatever its faults may be, at any rate was able to enliven the weight of his learning. By the resources and the quickness of his memory, by his erudition, and his command of his erudition, by his fluency and studied clearness, he has gained no more than the rank he deserves as an exponent of the matter of history, and as a critic of opinions. No amount of distaste for Whiggery or for common sense can with justice be allowed to detract from Macaulays fame. He was a man who knew himself to be destined from his birth for literature, and who followed his star without wavering or regret to the end. His literary ambition was one of the noblest, and its fulfilment among the happiest, in the record of English authors. The weaknesses of his style were known to himself, but among them he had no cause to reckon the vices of pretence or vanity. He knew the things that he appeared to know, and much more; and his reputation is only a fair tribute paid to him by those who have learned from him.
Macaulay in his prose never succeeded in giving such unity of life to his compositions as he was able to give in some of his poems. There is no battle in his History, not even the relief of Londonderry, that has the impetuous and continuous energy of the Battle of Lake Regillus; no typical character or humour is delineated with the same unity of effect as Obadiah Bind-their-kings-in-chains in his dramatic ballad; no description of a character, no peroration, in the Essays or the History has any claim to be set beside the Jacobites Epitaph, or represents the dignity of the old school of historical composition as those couplets represent the school of the Vanity of Human Wishes. The best of his poems however display the same mode of thought and imagination as the Essays and the History. If the action is livelier at the bridge of Tiber than at Boyne Water, still the way in which the two scenes are imagined is much the same; and the spectacle of the trial of Warren Hastings is rendered with the same kind of selection and distribution of characteristic epithets, and the same spirit, as the catalogue of forces sent into the field in the ballads of Rome. No man ever did more than Macaulay by way of imaginative recollection in illustration of history; no historian remembers at once so much and with so much vividness. It is always however, both at its best and at its worst, a vividness of illustration and commentary rather than of the central and creative imagination.
In the essay on Byron, in one of those passages of literary criticism which he unduly depreciated, Macaulay has described the difference between the personages of a drama and the characters in a satire: a dramatist cannot commit a greater error than that of following those pointed descriptions of character in which satirists and historians indulge so much. The kind of narrative and description in which Macaulay himself excelled was more nearly related to the satire of Dryden or Pope, than to the more difficult and more imaginative order of invention which Macaulay recognised so well and honoured so unreservedly wherever he found it. There is something of the nature of satura in some of his finest passages, and some of his worst are those which he has described by anticipation in his notes on Byrons Sardanapalus. By judicious selection and judicious exaggeration the intellect and the disposition of any human being might be described as being made up of startling contrasts. It is by this process that Macaulays descriptions of Johnson, of Boswell, and of Horace Walpole have been composed; not by a dramatic conception of their characters, but mainly by a collection of quotations strung together.
The variety and brilliance of details in Macaulays writing make one of the chief distinctions between his manner and that of the preceding century. He kept the old standards of taste in many things. His fondness for abrupt short sentences does not always conceal the old model on which they are formed. His short sentences are generally clauses in an old-fashioned antithetic period. Instead of the roll and volume of the periods of Gibbon, there is a succession of short waves; but these are carried forward generally on the top of a swell, the rhythm of which is the rhythm of the older period, while this older periodic cadence reappears undisguised whenever Macaulay chooses to keep his sentences long. Though he had escaped with his contemporaries from the old dogmas of criticism, he had no hatred of the eighteenth century and its respectability, such as moved the more vehement spirits in his day. He had, however, in common with men as unlike him as Carlyle, an aversion to the colourless and abstract graces of the old polite literature. In the plan of his work he seldom chooses to vary much from the old conventions of literary architecture; he does not envy the craft of Teufelsdröckh; his building is ruled by the simplest principles of proportion. But while the outlines are thus conformable to the old fashions, there is a very much greater amount of picturesque detail than would have been admitted by the old masters. The outlines are filled up with crowds of particulars. That fondness for particulars in description which distinguished the poems and novels of the new age from the more generalised and abstract compositions of the old school was hardly less strong in Macaulay than in Carlyle or in Browning. Though even in this respect, where Macaulay seems to come nearest in his prose to the flamboyant varieties of romance and poetry, he invents no new procedure or method of handling, but keeps the old tools of illustrative rhetoric. Johnson could write that no man can reasonably be thought a lover of his country for roasting an ox, or burning a boot, or attending the meeting at Mile-End, or registering his name in the lumber-troop. Macaulays illustrations are introduced by the same familiar method of satirical elaboration. He goes to greater expense in this way than his predecessors had done, but he does not go out of his way to invent new devices like those of Sartor Resartus or the Opium Eater. Though he may be more extravagant and profuse in his variety of details than is consistent with the old dignity of history, this variety is all supported by a structure of great plainness. Some of his decorations appear to have surprised the judicious almost as much as Carlyles French Revolution, but there was nothing in Macaulays general plan of writing that was at all in sympathy with that new model.
The great fault of his style may be discovered in a want of harmony between his abstract foundations and his picturesque ornaments. In Gibbon there is an exact proportion between the form and the contents. The unity of no chapter is broken by excess of detail in particular parts of the subject. The rhythm of each sentence is adequate to the amount of matter it contains. In Macaulays prose the continuity of the narrative or dissertation is frequently sacrificed for the sake of a number of small rhetorical points, which help to stimulate the attention at first, but may easily become monotonous or irritating. The cumulative effect of the story is not always secured; the short sentences, the strings of particulars, interfere with it. Thus the glories of the wonderful year of 1759 are proclaimed in a brisk staccato manner that leaves no clear impression of the significance of the events. The year of 1759 opened with the conquest of Goree. Next fell Guadaloupe, then Ticonderoga, then Niagara. The Toulon squadron was completely defeated by Boscawen off Cape Lagos. But the greatest exploit of the year was the achievement of Wolfe on the Heights of Abraham. The news of his glorious death reached London in the very week in which the Houses met. All was joy and triumph. Envy and faction were forced to join in the general applause. Here it is evident that the effect desired is that of variety, and that this variety has broken up a good rhetorical period and dissipated its strength. The ear has not recovered from Ticonderoga and Cape Lagos in time to appreciate the climax of the story at Quebec. It is all confused noise; joy and triumph, envy and faction are discharged at the end in the same loud emphatic monotone as the names of the victories at the beginning.
The description of the battle of the Boyne is faulty in the same way. The author has not chosen to make use of any new method in arranging his details. He has more details on his hands than will easily go into the old framework; but in they must go. During near half an hour the battle continued to rage along the southern shore of the river. All was smoke, dust, and din. Old soldiers were heard to say that they had seldom seen sharper work in the Low Countries. But just at this conjuncture William came up with the left wing. He had found much difficulty in crossing. The tide was running fast. His charger had been forced to swim and had been almost lost in the mud. As soon as the king was on firm ground, etc. It is not hard to see how ill this has been planned, and how irrelevant the old soldiers are. Excessive details are thrust into a composition that requires much fewer particulars, and a longer sweep of the narrative sentence. It is something more than an historical statement; it is something less than epic.
Almost all the prose that was written by Macaulay before his History, belongs more or less to the literature of discussion, to the province of debatable opinions. It is not in discussion that Macaulay is strongest, though his strength is great; but it is certainly the case that without the provocation of something to discuss, his narrative is apt to languish. His strength in history and in the description of characters is closely dependent upon his interest in debated questions. The satirist who cannot trust himself to conduct a story of his own, or to describe a character for its own sake, must have his general moral thesis or his particular aversion, as a beginning, before he can bring forward his character of Sporus or Avidien.
Macaulays passages of debating argument, whether in the Edinburgh Review or in the House of Commons, differ very greatly in their effective qualities. Perhaps he is at his best in his discussion of James Mills theory of government in one kind, and in the speech on the gates of Somnauth in another. In the abstract and a priori political philosophy of the Utilitarians, he had the good fortune to find the direct opposite of his own intellectual habits, and exactly that form of sophistry, the antidote to which was provided by his reading of history and command of historical instances and historical judgment. In dealing with Lord Ellenboroughs proclamation his luck was even better; his adversarys rhetoric was as ludicrous as Mr. Robert Montgomerys, while the questions involved in the proclamation of the Governor-General of India were serious enough to bring out Macaulays utmost energy. Macaulay in 1842 was a champion of the honour of England, an advocate speaking with the authority of experience in a debate where the whole Indian Empire, and nothing less, was to be disposed of. And it was by a vice of rhetoric, an absurd defect of taste in the Governor-General, that the Empire was being endangered; so that Macaulays rhetorical skill in operating on bloated metaphors was here put at the service of his deepest political hopes and convictions, and helped to save the State.
Macaulays power in discussion is curiously uncertain and variable. His detachment from abstract principles and systems of philosophy, while it saves him from the fallacies of the pedants and formalists, the Idola Theatri, leaves him exposed to the many dangers of opportunism. Generally he was protected by the natural soundness of his disposition, and by his command of particular instances, from committing himself to fallacious positions. Sometimes, however, his wide knowledge of particulars and his rich and full appreciation of books and authors were not sufficient: the extent of his knowledge was not always enough to make up for the want of a philosophy.
His contention in the second part of his essay on Bacon remains almost inexplicable. The fallacy in it is one of imagination rather than of logic, a fallacy that may seem to be too deep-rooted in the nature of his mind to be cleared away by any process of apology or extenuation. It remains the most dangerous of all the pieces of evidence in the hands of the advocatus diaboli to disprove the greatness of Macaulay.
In the essay on Bacon Macaulay was victimised by his love of clearness and of sharp contrasts. The talent that was rightly and effectively spent in the debates with James Mill or Lord Ellenborough is here wasted in a futile charge at a cloud of dust. In debating with James Mill, Macaulay had the full use of his historical knowledge and good sense to controvert a priori arguments about historical subjects. In criticising Lord Ellenborough he had, besides, the advantage of having been at the centre of things in India: he was talking of things that were part of his life. In the essay on Bacon he becomes the upholder of a common-place thesis: he is carried away, in a lapse of self-respect, by a movement of enthusiasm for things which his contemporaries were glad to see magnified out of all relation to their value. Some evil influence, like those which occasionally fetter and benumb the heroes in the Iliad, had impeded the movement of his mind, fixed him to one point of view, and made him argue for a single worthless conclusion without the power of changing his mental attitude or of getting round the question to see how it might look from the other side. It is unjust to take the essay on Bacon as representing Macaulays theory of the value of knowledge. He had taken it into his head to match Bacon against the caricatures of ancient philosophers, the budge doctors of the satirists. That Macaulay should have found any amusement in this degrading exercise is sufficiently perplexing. It is not necessary to believe that his praise of everything alien to science is an expression of his real judgment. No ancient philosopher ever spoke with more conviction of the worthlessness of material things in comparison with the things of the mind than Macaulay after his reverse of fortune in the Edinburgh election. The whole of his life is a proof of the sincerity of that profession of faith. What remains to be charged against him on the score of the essay on Bacon is not that the opinions are his own, but that by some preoccupation or by some obtuseness of sense he allowed himself to support opinions unworthy of him and at variance with his true character.
Macaulay was not proof against the infection of demagogy. He had a sympathy with many popular opinions about the relative values of things, opinions which were flourishing and strong enough without his encouragement. He did not always remember his obligations as a student. He allowed himself sometimes to sink to the position on which he had looked down with contempt when it was made ridiculous by the editor of Sir James Mackintoshs Remains. A gross contentment with modern progress and respectability received in this case its proper measure of correction from Macaulay. In other places he gave his countenance, apparently without qualms or scruples, to the march of intellect and its dismal and pusillanimous watchwords. His style, as well as his character as a reasoner, has suffered from these indulgences. His style seems to lose all its vigour when it is employed in congratulating the age on its useful knowledge and its handbooks of learning.
Macaulays weak places are those in which his memory fails to make up for the want of a philosophy. He did not feel the want of a theory of the universe, when he had his retentive and quick memory to supply him with images and ideas. There was no need for him to go burrowing and mining under the surface of phenomena; that painful work might be left to men who had not his range of vision on the whole field of history. He was not tempted to look for metaphysical explanations: he saw things framed in a large historical picture, and the picture was generally enough for him. His style was the style of a man singularly at ease in his own mind and in the command of his knowledge. He shows little trace of the sordid business of study, of the mechanical and laborious part of literary work. The picture of the world comes of itself before his mind, and flashes into vividness in this corner and in that, showing the relations of things to one another before he has had time to grow weary in puzzling them out. He can look down from his point of vantage on the crowd of antiquarian sappers and miners, creeping from fact to fact. His style reflects the cheerfulness of the mind that has secured itself in a specular tower, and has no need to vex itself about its point of view, or its principles of criticism. His view is its own justification, because it is a view full of light and variety, and different from that of the historical pioneer in his gallery underground.
A mind of this sort, relying on extent of view, without special science, is not out of danger of fallacies. The wide view and the long memory are wonderful and glorious; but if ever a mist comes over them, or the telescopic sight is accidentally blurred or hindered, then the failure is more hopeless and absolute than the errors of duller men who without genius rely on their training and scientific instruments. In his discussion of Bacons theory of knowledge, Macaulay had neglected to provide himself with any other than his ordinary methods of work, and unhappily in this case his ordinary methods failed him.
Wherever Macaulays view is restricted or prejudiced, it loses all light: there is no spiritual zeal in his argument, such as enlivens the judgment of Carlyle, even when its historical soundness is questionable. No writer is placed at such a disadvantage as Macaulay, when his worst passages are taken up and criticised minutely. With no writer is criticism so apt to be unjust, simply because it is impossible to represent in detail a genius which was great by the extent of its empire, rather than by any mystery of its inner shrines. To remember particular bits of Macaulays prose is not always as satisfactory as to remember his heroic ballads. But in the variegated mass of his writings, and in the impression of life and zest in all that he wrote, the particular faults and fallacies may easily and rightly pass out of notice. In the works that he wrote, as in his courageous and fortunate life, there is little claim to any deeper source or higher standard of knowledge than is recognised in the market place. For all that, his works and his life command the respect that is only paid to clearer sight and stronger wills than those of the general multitude.